By Ashir Rao
From Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, a Chinese balloon flew over the United States, starting in Alaska. It was first sighted on Feb. 1 over Billings, Montana, by former Billings Gazette editor Chase Doak. One of Doak’s friends sent the pictures to various government agencies, thinking that it might be a UFO.The American military claimed that the balloon was a spy balloon run by Chinese intelligence. China denied these allegations, stating that the balloon was released for weather research. On Feb. 4, the US Air Force shot down the balloon.
The next day, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) announced that they had been tracking the balloon for several days. The Washington Post reported that although the balloon resembled a weather balloon in many ways, it could be carrying telecommunications equipment. Another expert wrote in the BBC that the balloon lasting as long as it did indicated that it “might have been more sophisticated than China claims.”
The balloon was shot down off the coast of South Carolina, and was quickly salvaged by The United States Navy. While China has requested that the US return the remains, the US refused to do so. On February 3, another balloon was spotted flying over Latin America, which China also claims was for research.
The incident is straining already volatile relations between China, the US, and Canada. Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a scheduled diplomatic visit to Beijing. Internally, Americans were outraged, with ire from Republicans directed at President Biden for not ordering the balloon be destroyed sooner. The House of Representatives voted unanimously to condemn the incident, with US House Armed Services Mike Rogers characterizing the balloon as a calculated show of force.
Other analysts were more skeptical, pointing out that a balloon is not an ideal spying method. Many criticized coverage of the balloon as unnecessarily exaggerated. Saturday Night Live performer Bowen Yang satirized the coverage of the incident with his line “Congrats! You shot a balloon.”
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs still holds that the balloon was a “civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological purposes” and that it was “Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course.” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xi Feng claimed that the US used excessive force against the balloon and should return it to China.
(Sources: Washington Post, BBC, USA Today)
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